John Gomez Jr. parks his silver family van in the back row of one more anonymous strip mall off California’s Highway 79, an hour and a half southeast of Los Angeles, on a windswept ridge overlooking the Temecula Valley. Gomez, his dark hair barely betraying a sprinkling of gray at his temples, steps out of the van and walks away from the mall, to a barren dirt lot marked off with adobe walls.
“This is where Pablo is buried,” he says as we peer over the locked iron gate.
Pablo is Pablo Apis, the celebrated 19th-century “headman,” or chief, of the Temecula/Pechanga Indians, who was given more than 2,000 acres of land in exchange for his work at the Mission San Luis Rey. Gomez, who is a direct descendant of Chief Apis, jiggles the lock on the gate. He has no key.
“This is where a lot of our people were buried,” Gomez continues, “including those killed in the famous Temecula Massacre.” He’s referring to the killing of several dozen Indians by Californio militias in the closing days of 1846. Apis survived and, indeed, the 1875 treaty between the Temecula tribe and the U.S. government, though never ratified, was signed at the chief’s village adobe home.
Today, on a corner of Apis’ original land grant, a few minutes down the road from the desolate burial ground, towers the $350 million Pechanga Resort & Casino, the glittering 14-story pleasure dome so familiar to Southern Californians from the promotional and political-advocacy commercials in near-constant rotation on local television stations. With 522 rooms, 185,000 square feet of casino floor, 2,000 slot machines, more than 150 table games and seven restaurants, along with Vegas-class showrooms, nightclubs and comedy lounges, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, as the tribe is now known, runs the largest and perhaps most profitable of California’s nearly 60 Indian casinos. And now, under terms of a deal negotiated by Governor Schwarzenegger, ratified earlier this year by the Democratic-led state legislature and set to go before voters in the February 5 primary election, the Pechanga and three other Southern California tribes may soon triple their battery of slot machines, allowing each of the four Indian groups to operate twice as many slots as any Vegas casino. If the referendums go through, the four tribes — Morongo, Agua Caliente, Sycuan and Pechanga — will be responsible for the largest expansion of gambling in recent U.S. history.
Gomez, a 40-year-old paralegal, helped birth the Pechanga mega-resort, which opened in 2002 and today grosses as much as $1 billion a year. He worked as a legal and cultural adviser to his tribe, a representative and lobbyist, and, along with several of his family members, served on key tribal committees as the Pechanga moved, almost overnight, from obscure poverty to a position of awesome political and economic power.
But it’s Gomez’s tribe no more. At least as far as the tribal leadership is concerned. Gomez and 135 adult members of his extended family (and 75 or more children) have been purged from formal Pechanga membership; they have been “disenrolled.” They were accused of no crime, no misbehavior, no wrongdoing, no disloyalty. But a series of tribal kangaroo-court hearings, bereft of even the pretense of due process, ruled that one of the family’s deceased elders was not an authentic tribe member and, therefore, not withstanding their years of service to the tribe, they were all to be banned.
And so today John Gomez can only stand outside the cemetery where Chief Apis and his other forebears are buried. “My family’s history is the history of Temecula and the Pechanga,” says Gomez. “But now, somehow, we have become traitors.”
As we drive from the cemetery and cruise by the city park named for Chief Apis, Gomez says, “I loved my job. I loved my tribe. But growing up .?.?. growing up, man .?.?. I would never, ever have thought our tribe would come to this.”
What it’s come to goes beyond tribal pride. As a result of the disenrollment, many in the Gomez family, which accounts for some 10 percent of the total Pechanga tribe’s membership, have lost their federal standing and benefits as American Indians. Some have lost their jobs at the resort. All of the adults, including Gomez, lost the generous per capita monthly payout, derived from casino profits, that was given to each adult of the tribe. When the Gomez family’s expulsion was finalized in 2004, that was about $15,000 per month. Currently, for those who remain members of the tribe, the figure has risen to about $40,000 per month.
The sharp increase is due in part to a second wave of purges, finalized last year, which disenrolled another extended family, this one descended from Paulina Hunter and representing yet another 10 percent of the tribe. That second purge went ahead despite a tribe-commissioned expert probe that concluded that Hunter was, in fact, a Pechanga. Simply put: The fewer the tribal members, the bigger the payout.
Some of the elderly disenrollees found themselves cut off from tribal clinics they helped to build. Some of the younger ones lost their education subsidies. What all the disenrollees have in common is not only the sudden loss of significant income but erasure of their collective cultural history and identity.
“Yes, we lost homes and cars. Some went into bankruptcy,” Gomez says. “But mostly I was saddened for my family and for Indian country in general. It’s not just your money they’re taking away but also your heritage and your future.”
With Indian gaming revenues now near the $30 billion mark nationally, disenrollment has rocked and divided Indian reservations from coast to coast.
“Gaming has brought in the dominant culture’s disease of greed,’’ Marty Firerider of the California American Indian Movement told the Indian Country Today newspaper.
In Oklahoma, just to cite one example, 2,800 descendants of “freedmen” — former African-American slaves who were “adopted” by the Cherokee — are now being expelled. But the epicenter of the disenrollment crisis is in California, where more than a dozen gaming tribes have already purged as many as 4,000 members. Little recourse is available to the disenrollees because state and federal courts have so far ruled that under the cloak of sovereign immunity, the tribes alone can serve as final arbiters of membership. Likewise, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has mostly defaulted to the tribes. And the media has been met with a virtual stonewall from the tribes, which claim they have no need to justify their internal affairs. As a result, stories about the disenrollments in local media stir little public outrage. One exception took place this past Labor Day weekend, when Bill Cosby canceled a scheduled performance at the Chukchansi tribe’s casino outside Fresno. Over the past year the tribe has purged a whopping half of its 1,200 members, and the Coz wanted no part of the increasingly ugly dispute.
But now, with four powerful Southern California tribes ready to make literally billions of dollars over the next two decades if the Schwarzenegger-negotiated gambling expansion is approved in the February 5 primary, the disenrollments have taken on a new timeliness. Gomez and his allies have emerged as leaders of a growing national movement to legally and politically challenge the tribal purges, which were first set in motion among the Pechanga in 2002, 127 years after the 1875 eviction of the tribe from its ancestral land by Temecula ranchers. Not coincidentally, the case of the disenrolled Pechanga could move to political center stage over the next few weeks.
“Don’t be surprised if you see Gomez or some of the other disenrollees show up soon in some TV spots,” says an activist supporting the ballot initiatives (Propositions 94 through 97, one proposition for each tribe) that would cancel the expansion deals. “They are the faces of everything wrong with the runaway power of the tribe.”
Gomez first got into trouble with his Pechanga tribe in 2002, when, as a trusted legal adviser, he was elected to the tribal-enrollment committee, along with a cousin and a member of the Paulina Hunter family. These were sensitive positions. After the tribe won its first minor gambling concession in 1996, and after California voters approved major Indian gaming rights four years later, it was only natural that there would be an increase in those suddenly claiming membership.
“As soon as we were elected, we found that the committee was doing all kinds of strange things,” Gomez says. “On the one hand they weren’t adhering to an enrollment moratorium and on the other they weren’t properly processing the minor children of those already enrolled.”
Gomez and his new allies began an investigation.
The boom quickly dropped on them. Within weeks a letter emerged from a group called Concerned Pechanga People, a small faction closely allied with the tribal leadership and its chair, Mark Macarro, which accused Gomez and his family of not being legitimate Pechanga. By the end of the year, Gomez’s extended family were notified of pending disenrollment. During an internal process that lasted more than a year and a half, Gomez put together binders of documentation proving — at least to virtually every outside observer who has reviewed them — his Pechanga ancestry.
But the tribal leadership, in closed-door sessions that adhered to no formal due process or rules of evidence, held to its position that one key elder in Gomez’s lineage — Manuela Miranda — had left the traditional village after her marriage and, therefore, her descendants weren’t really Pechanga. The claim, according to several experts, is prima facie absurd, as the history of American Indians is based on such dispersion and diaspora.
“No matter,” says Gomez. “Their minds were made up. The tribe could provide no solid evidence to back their claim against us. We were just out, period.” Among those disenrolled with Gomez were his brother Marc, the executive chef for the casino; his father, John Gomez Sr., a major figure in tribal outreach; a cousin who was a top financial adviser to the tribe; a cousin who headed the tribal fire department; a cousin who was chief of the casino’s human resources; and a cousin who was an assistant in the same department.
The final disenrollment of the Gomez clan in 2004 sent shock waves through the Pechanga community. After all, Gomez had been very tight with Chairman Macarro, known broadly to Californians as the public face of Indian gambling. With his leather vest, ponytail, youthful good looks and soft-spoken tone, Macarro has been the prominent figure in tens of millions of dollars’ worth of pro-Indian-gaming advertising.
“Mark spoke at my uncle’s funeral. His brother sang at my son’s dedication to the tribe,” says Gomez. “I thought we were pretty close when we were lobbying together for the tribe. But then, as our power grew — and let me tell you, we have a lot of power in Sacramento — I could see this sort of Napoleonic complex emerge. He loved to send out BlackBerry messages with, like, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you, you guys. You don’t know what you’re doing.’ He became a control freak.”
Ironically, Macarro’s own lineage seems blurry, and he was not a significant presence on the reservation until after gaming was legalized in 1996.
Chairman Macarro, consistent with the tribe’s usual stand on these matters, refused to comment on this story. When KNBC produced a story on disenrollments last year, the tribe bought a pre-emptive rebuttal commercial designed specifically to air just before the news segment, then at the last minute granted a brief interview to reporter Colleen Williams. “This has never been about money,” Macarro told Williams in response to accusations of greed on the part of tribal leadership. “This is about the integrity of tribal citizenship here at Pechanga. If there was a corn field instead of a casino, these same challenges would have taken the same path to the same conclusion.”
A number of tribe members interviewed for this report, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal, insist that the purges were not only motivated by economic reasons but also by a desire by Macarro to consolidate power. Gomez was a popular figure who had an independent base and whom Macarro might have perceived as a threat to his own position.
“No coincidence that getting rid of the Gomez family came right before the re-election vote for Macarro,” says one tribe member. “In one stroke he got rid of 10 percent of the voters, a big enough chunk that could have swung the election against him.”
A few months after Gomez was canned, the Concerned Pechanga People — now operating as a thinly veiled “AstroTurf” front group for the tribal leadership — once again reared its head, with a written demand that a second extended family, the descendants of Paulina Hunter, also be expelled.
Alarm bells suddenly went off among the more astute leaders of the tribe. After all, the Pechanga had been widely admired for possessing what appeared to be one of the most progressive of California Indian leaderships. With its newfound wealth, the tribe invested heavily in internal educational and cultural projects. The Pechanga language was once again being taught to the children.
“At the Pechanga reservation preschool, Indian boys and girls sing ‘Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed’ in a language that’s 10,000 years old,” the Sacramento Bee wrote in 2003. The tribal cultural heritage was being reconstructed. And perhaps most importantly, the tribe had become a major behind-the-scenes player in state politics, its leadership hobnobbing with Sacramento power brokers and lavishing favors and contributions on lobbyists and policymakers. The last thing it needed was a dirty, public, Sopranos-like bloodbath waged over gambling profits.
Anthony Miranda, a veteran architect of the tribe’s gambling and business strategy, swung into action and circulated a petition calling on the tribe to halt any further disenrollments. (Miranda, current chair of the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, did not respond to a request for an interview.) After getting enough signatures, Miranda’s proposal came before a general membership meeting of the tribe in the summer of 2005. And it passed by a clear majority.
Sensing a startling erosion in his political base and once again facing re-election, Chairman Macarro, along with his allies in the tribal leadership, reacted in precisely the opposite way to that intended by the petitioners.
“Now they knew they had to get rid of the Hunter family as well,” says Gomez. “Mark’s electoral majority was clearly at risk, and the Hunters represented a possible 100 votes against him.”
Blatantly ignoring the general membership’s ban on further disenrollment, the tribal leadership notified the extended Hunter family of their expulsion in mid-2005. It was formalized in the fall of 2006. In the meantime, Macarro was re-elected chairman.
The winding, bumpy dirt road into the Pechanga reservation might as well be in a different universe from the sulfur-lit thoroughfares that lead into the nearby casino. You’d never guess from appearances that those who inhabit the ramshackle trailers and mobile homes that line the road are part-owners of the virtual money-minting casino a few minutes away.
“For a lot of these people, the reservation is just a P.O. box,” says the tribe member who has driven me in. “If you declare this as your legal residence, you pay no rent, almost no property tax, and most importantly you pay no state tax on the per capita monthly payment,” he says, referring to the juicy payout from the casino.
Many of the families who “live” on the rez have second and even third homes elsewhere. Chairman Macarro lives on the ritzy so-called “Millionaire’s Row” in the toniest neighborhood in Temecula.
“That guy’s disenrolled. So is that one and that one,” says the young Pechanga as he points to the dingy trailer homes we pass. Indeed, the first five trailers we come upon are those of expellees. For the moment, at least, they can continue to stay where they are, but they have no right to tribal health, educational or cultural facilities.
After driving by the Pechanga Fire and Public Safety offices, we come to a green sign reading “Hunter Lane” — named for Paulina Hunter, the deceased elder whom the leadership deemed to have been a San Luis Rey Indian and not a Pechanga. Suddenly we’re in front of a charming, literally handcrafted two-story cottage that seems to have been transported out of a fairy tale. In the warm, wood-paneled cottage living room, a huge model of the Titanic sits atop a console TV. It, like the house, was meticulously assembled by its occupant, 90-year-old Lawrence Madariaga, the eldest member of the Pechanga tribe — until, that is, he was disenrolled, along with all the Hunter descendants last year.
“Oh, no, I’m not going anywhere,” he says as his 87-year-old wife, Sophie, joins us on a divan. “Could never live in any real neighborhood after living here.”
Madariaga, once the foreman of an L.A.-area lumberyard, helped bring electricity to the reservation in 1968, and played a key role in bringing running water and a sewage system to the land. Madariaga helped to draft the blueprint for, and to build, the reservation’s clinic. He also was one of the few men trusted to write the tribal charter and, rather ironically, its criteria for membership. The great-grandson of Paulina Hunter, he still possesses the original land deed given to the family and signed by President McKinley.
Madariaga, who suffers from prostate cancer, creaks off the couch and shows me a framed, engraved plaque reading: “Silver Feather Elders: Member of the Year 2005.” He received the award a month before his disenrollment notice.
Retired since 1980, Madariaga boasts of having made wise investments and building up a decent retirement fund before the casino boon. “I don’t miss that money,” he says of the per capita payment that was taken away. “But they’ve taken away our rights, taken away our whole past. We don’t know now if we are from Jupiter or Mars.”
What was firmly established was Madariaga’s lineage as a Pechanga. While he and his family were appealing the expulsion, the tribe — in order to minimize criticism — hired renowned anthropologist Dr. John Johnson, a curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, to conduct an “independent” probe of the Hunter family’s bloodlines.
In a richly detailed report, received by the Pechanga Enrollment Committee in late 2004, Johnson concludes that the “preponderance of evidence gathered from the surviving documents leads to the conclusion that Paulina Hunter was a tribal member of Temecula and Pechanga.” When asked later by a reporter to be more specific, Johnson said there was a “90 percent” chance that Hunter was a Pechanga. In the KNBC story, he was even more emphatic: “She’s definitely Pechanga Indian, 100 percent.” The tribe, however, flatly ignored its own commissioned expert report and proceeded with the expulsion.
“They ignored whatever I did in their decision making,” Johnson told L.A. Weekly after the disenrollment was formalized. “It’s too bad economics and politics have been injected” into the tribal rulings.
While Johnson’s probe was pushed aside, the tribe wound up basing its ruling on the written allegation of a somewhat less expert source, former tribal chairman Vincent Belasco Ibanez, who at the time was completing an eight-year prison term for sexual molestation of a minor. And while Johnson had earned a doctorate in anthropology at UC Santa Barbara and had established a 30-year history as an expert in probing Indian culture and archival records, former chairman Ibanez was known primarily for guiding nature walks focused on native plants.
Again, Chairman Macarro would not explain directly to L.A. Weekly why the conclusions of the tribe’s own hired expert were ignored. But he did tell KNBC, “As was reported to me, there was a percentage figure of estimation, and it was 90 percent, and it was regarded as nonconclusive, and let me further state, again, the courts have affirmed that not anthropologists but tribes themselves have the responsibility to maintain the integrity. Only tribes know their own history. As a legal matter, this case is closed, and the courts have moved on and the tribe have moved on.”
In August of 2006, Macarro issued a written statement on the case. “This is a very complex intertribal matter involving Pechanga history and genealogy,” he wrote. “The insinuation that these actions are motivated by politics or profits is reprehensible. The fact is that disenrollments occurred long before Pechanga ever opened its gaming facility.”
History suggests exactly the opposite. For most of the 20th century, Indian tribes struggled desperately to find, recruit and include new members in order to gain official federal recognition. While factional disputes, including among the Pechanga, were not unusual in the past, any occurrence of massive disenrollment of the sort visited upon the Gomez and Hunter families took place only after eye-popping gambling profits became part of the equation.
“What they did is that they screwed us out of who we are. It’s like if someone came to you and said you’re no longer a U.S. citizen,” says 45-year-old Michael Madariaga, grandson of Lawrence. For 11 years he worked as a stock manager at the tribal resort; he was fired after he was disenrolled. “None of this really started till after Prop. 1A was passed,” he says, referring to the 2000 ballot initiative that green-lighted Nevada-style Indian casinos. “The minute [gambling] became legal, everything began to change. I personally voted against the casino, knowing it would change everything about us. We were voting ways they didn’t like, 100 votes they didn’t like. That’s what this is about.”
The younger Madariaga’s anger remains red-hot a year after his disenrollment. “Mark Macarro speaks with a forked tongue,” he says. “The lies are outrageous. He has brought more shame on us than any other tribe has suffered. Other tribes think what he has done to us is shameful. I call him Mark ‘Hitler’ Macarro.”
That’s not a view shared by the throngs that overflow the Pechanga resort on the Friday night after Thanksgiving. They’re hoping Macarro is more like Santa Claus. That’s assuming that the patrons even know, or care, who Macarro is, or for that matter, who the Pechanga are. In the meantime, there’s a long line of cars backed up and waiting for the casino valet. The $100 tickets to the show by Tom Jones are sold out. There’s a long line even for the junk food in the food court. The gaming tables are elbow to elbow, even with a $15 minimum for blackjack bets. The usual bruisers in black suits are controlling the rope line at the sleek Silk nightclub on the second floor. There’s a waiting list for just about any game in the 60-table poker room, home base for this year’s winner of the World Series of Poker, Temecula’s Jerry Yang, who qualified for the competition at the Pechanga card parlor. And the slot machines, row after row after row after row of them, are hungrily sucking in the cash and spitting out the meager remains.
No wonder, then, that the Pechanga, along with the other three wealthy tribes that stand to benefit from the expansion deals signed by the governor, have already ponied up a massive $45 million war chest to defend the agreements when they go before the voters on February 5, and are reportedly willing to spend another $30 million before the fight is over. If it withstands voter scrutiny, the Pechanga deal would allow the tribe to move from its current limit of 2,000 slot machines to 7,500 for the next 23 years. Industry experts estimate that each machine turns an average profit of as much as $300 a day. Doing the math might also explain why, during the first six months of 2007, the Pechanga spent $32,000 on meals and parties given to California lawmakers, according to lobbying reports filed with the state. During that period, a quarter of state legislators were treated to freebies at the expense of the Pechanga. At one casino dinner in March attended by state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, four staff aides and the tribe’s leadership, the tab picked up by the tribe was $4,300.
It’s all legal, if not entirely wholesome. And it’s but a pittance in the context of the literally tens of millions of dollars given by the four tribes in political contributions since Indian gaming was legalized. The combined revenue of California’s Indian casinos, nearing $8 billion, is now greater than the take from all the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. With that sort of clout, the Pechanga and the other tribes got their way when, in late June, the Assembly finally ratified the expansion deals that had been bottled up for months.
Democratic lawmakers had been under intense pressure from their traditional allies in the labor movement to hold up the revised agreements, known as compacts, because they lacked sufficient guarantees for union organizing. And the affected tribes, including the Pechanga, have been notoriously phobic about unions. Soon after Governor Schwarzenegger came into office he notified California tribes that he would only agree to expansion of their current gambling operations if they agreed to kick back a significant portion of revenue to the state, and if they agreed to greater oversight and scrutiny, including an easing of labor rules so as to allow unionization of what have been mostly low-paid casino staff. (In the case of the Agua Caliente tribe, casino management has in the past organized seminars informing its paid staff on how to enroll their children in state-welfare medical programs.) But as powerful Indian tribes flexed their political and economic muscle, the governor performed his greatest historic flip-flop and dropped the pro-union demands. [See Cooper’s Nov. 28 L.A. Weekly “Dissonance” column, “Gambling Lobby Lapdogs,” at https://tinyurl.com/35c5lf.]
California unions reacted with fury when Speaker Nuñez led the Democrats this summer in ratifying the compacts that had been gutted of labor guarantees. The UNITE HERE hotel workers’ union quickly assembled a coalition of convenience, joining with the operators of the local Hollywood Park racetrack and card club, and with two other, smaller Indian gaming tribes, to challenge the agreements on the ballot. Raising an initial $4 million (with plans to raise $5 million more), the opponents collected the hundreds of thousands of signatures necessary and withstood various legal challenges brought by the tribes in order to ask California voters to turn thumbs down on the expansion on the February ballot.
“Why do these established tribes need more than one casino?” asks Cheryl Schmit, director of the gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California and now a paid consultant to the coalition to overturn the compacts. “This is the largest expansion of gambling the nation has ever seen,” she says. “It’s an intensive cash industry with no effective regulation, opening the door to fraud, corruption and money laundering.”
Political analysts are predicting a battle royal around the casino initiatives in these closing campaign weeks, in addition to uncertain results, as polls show deep ambivalence on the part of California voters. The tribes, including the Pechanga, could attempt to tip the scale in their favor by spending literally tens of millions in last-minute political ads. The governor might also make a last-minute, full-court press to approve the deals. He’s been arguing that the state stands to make billions of dollars from increased tribal gaming revenue, while the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office says the governor’s predictions are markedly overstated. On the other side, the expansion opponents recently picked up the support of the deep-pocketed California Federation of Teachers.
The tribes are making “false promises” of more money going to the schools, says CFT leader Marty Hittleman, “when, in fact, not one penny is guaranteed to the state’s education budget.” Hittleman calls the coming ballot vote a rare chance to “correct a legislative mistake.”
Out of his painful disenrollment experience, John Gomez Jr. has emerged as one of the most significant national leaders in fighting tribal expulsions, and wound up recently signing the California ballot arguments against the compact ratification. A year ago he formed the American Indian Rights and Resources Organization (AIRRO), which has brought together disenrollees from across the country and wants to reframe the national debate on Indian gaming. Tribes won their gaming rights by making a compelling civil rights argument; after centuries of oppression they had earned the right to self-reliance and compensation. Gomez is now attempting some political jujitsu by emphasizing the civil rights aspect of disenrollment. Citing what he calls an “increase in the number of human and civil rights violations, especially within tribes that have gaming operations,” Gomez and his allies are working to reform the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act.
“It was originally passed to protect Indians against others,” he says. “That’s fine. But now it must be amended to protect Indians against other Indians.”
AIRRO has spent much of this year intensely lobbying within the California Democratic Party, trying also to gain the attention of the state’s federal legislators. With the support of former congressional candidate and Fresno-area party activist Steve Haze, the Native American Caucus of the CDP passed a resolution earlier this year to support reform legislation proposed by AIRRO. A few weeks ago Gomez and his allies brought the same issue before the statewide convention of the entire state Democratic Party. So far, results have been modest, but local U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson has stepped forward as a loud advocate of the disenrolled. She has authored a measure that would cut ties between the Cherokee tribe and the U.S. government, choking off any federal funding. And Watson has been quick to link the Cherokee case with that of the Pechanga — one of the few legislators at any level to show any public sympathy for the disenrolled.
“These guys are up against a wall of casino money,” says one veteran Democratic consultant about the disenrollees and their political chances. “And both parties have benefited from tribal largess. The Democrats aren’t going to do much on this until after the February vote. If the compacts hold up, so will the love affair with the Indians. Only if the voters turn their backs on the tribes could you expect any real change in the legislative atmosphere.”
Meanwhile, the Madariaga family remains on the cutting edge of the legal challenge to unhampered tribal sovereignty. Until now the Supreme Court has refused to deal with the question of whether or not the California courts are empowered to hear civil disputes that arise within sovereign Indian tribes. But attorneys for the Madariaga family are hoping to take their plight through the federal courts precisely on charges of civil rights violations, a novel and innovative strategy that could potentially reduce the power of tribal councils.
“We have to be able to use that Indian Civil Rights Act,” says Michael Madariaga. “You can’t go into the courts unless the federal government gets behind enforcing things. We’re not there yet.”
For his part, clan elder Lawrence Madariaga says he is content to spend the rest of his days on the reservation working in his yard, nurturing his garden with water he helped bring to Indian land and keeping up the house he hammered together with his own sweat. As for his longtime ties with the tribe that disowned him, to hell with them.
“I got pissed off, you know?” he says as he walks me out the door. “I threw away all the goodies they gave me when I won the Silver Feather award; the jacket, the buffet card, everything. Only my wife made me keep the plaque. But I said to myself: ‘How can people be the way they are?’ Whether it’s greed or jealousy, I just don’t understand it. All I know is that it really hurts a person to live through it.”